Today we are witnesses to the birth and tremendous growth of social networking, and sensational claims about its future. What is that future?
In communication, the last century saw a remarkable increase in speed and convenience. Everyone in the US has known about telephones as long as they can remember. A few of the old crank phones were around for a while, but the rotary dial phone was common in the '50s, the touch-tone phone came along in the '60s, and cell phones in the '70s.
But while phones have been great for oral communication for nearly a hundred years, getting documents from one place to another was a problem well into the second half of the last century. There wasn't much choice; sticking paper in an envelope and entrusting it to the post office was about it. And then came the fax.
I remember seeing Steve McGarrett getting faxes on Hawaii Five-O. The facsimile machine (fax) would create an image - usually of a ne'er do well he was tracking - on a spinning drum, a process that seemed to take half an hour to complete. Faxes were common around the world in the '80s, when faxing by computer came along.
Although the fax machine must have been a hard sell at first - "Great! I can get a copy of a document anywhere almost instantly! But who else has one?" - there were very good, and explainable, reasons to have a fax, which soon became an indispensable part of business. It was days faster than mail, and though the early machines were expensive, the obvious advantages increased demand, which led to lower costs and improved performance.
The cell phone has a similar history. The benefits of being able to contact someone nearly anywhere, or of being able to make a call without first finding a phone booth, were obvious, and demand again led to lower costs and improved performance. The advantages, again, could be explained.
And then we have the Internet and e-mail. Again, a tremendous improvement in ability to communicate. Virtually instantaneous transmission of documents, audio, and video at little cost. Although there was a lot of hype about the Internet, its benefits were easy to explain. I was an early participant, and a promoter, as the benefits were so obvious.
In contrast, the proponents of cable and satellite TV promised a wonderful future, full of educational and cultural programming, free of advertising. The supposed benefits were based on assumptions. The reality? Instead of four or five TV channels, we now have hundreds of channels of re-runs, "reality" shows, game shows, and other drivel - along with advertising.
The fax, the cell phone, and the Internet offered substantial improvements in communication, and were obviously useful in doing business. Today, we're being told how important it is to use social networking, and that to survive, a business must use it. But, unlike the fax, the cell phone, the Internet, and e-mail, there has been no clear benefit associated with the social network.
Let me make a distinction here; I'm talking about business. I like satellite TV because I like to watch movies, and I have a Facebook account because that's where my kids put pictures of their kids. Much of the fun of Facebook comes from the free-for-all commentary in response to comments and pictures, and the ease of posting both. But does that work for business? While a website will always deliver the desired message and image, Facebook, and, increasingly, LinkedIn, are chaotic, with the last visitor defining to the next visitor what the group is.
If anything, the use of LinkedIn and Facebook groups for business has confused communication by increasing the number of places to store and look for information, and Twitter's tweets are more of an annoying buzz. I'm not saying that these things don't have a place; I just haven't seen a good example of their use in business. While I am interested in what my friends are doing, on a business level I don't need to see personal details - when they feel good, when they have a headache, what the dog's latest trick is, and so on. When I go to Facebook, that's what I expect, but I don't want to see it when I'm doing business.
So far, random thoughts are what social networking seems to be about. I recently read an editorial in Structural Engineering & Design, which talked about the magazine's expansion into social media. In the same issue, the following were offered as "Top tweets" on the magazine's website:
- “Managers fear tighter budgets…”
- “George Washington University tests materials…”
- “Cleveland casino to break ground in 2011”
- “…bridge collapses…”
- “Will [one building be taller than another]?”
While writing this, I revisited the magazine's Facebook site. Virtually everything on the wall was a tweet, with a couple of Thanksgiving Day greetings, and a "hi everybody". There were several photos from a meeting, magazine covers, and no discussions. In short, it was mostly material that would appear in the magazine. The magazine is published both in print and on paper, so the Facebook site adds little that isn't already available.
A real concern is the fragmentation of communication. If I want to know more about something mentioned by Structural Engineering & Design should I go to the website, the LinkedIn site, the Facebook site, or Twitter? Does each have a unique function? If the same information is repeated everywhere, what is the point of having multiple sources? And if it's different, how will I know where to go? Who is making sure that it's current and correct? Of course, if Mark Zuckerberg has his way, there will be only one answer!
Many organizations and companies are struggling with these issues. Unfortunately, the unsubstantiated claims - “You must use Facebook!”, “You won’t survive if you don’t tweet!”, and so on - exacerbate the problem. I am not a Luddite; my experience with computers goes back to punch cards and FORTRAN, and I was an active and early promoter of websites and e-mail. I have created and maintained websites; e-mail and the Internet are essential to my job; and I have LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Twitter accounts.
CSI has about 120 websites, about forty-five LinkedIn groups, and half a dozen Facebook groups. About fifteen of the websites are down, and many of the remaining sites promote activities that are two or more months old as "coming events". The most recent comments in many of the LinkedIn groups are months old, and some go back more than a year. Isn't CSI the organization that promotes "say it once in the right place"? With information appearing in so many places, will it be clear, complete, concise, and correct? And isn't current important? It's better to have a static website with basic information than to have one that shows that no one cares about what is available.
Convince me! Would we not be better off with an organized, consistent Internet presence? If it's so important to be involved in social networking, shouldn't we be everywhere? If you click on the "share" icon on many websites, you get over three hundred options - should we use all of them? If we continue to create new groups in other networks, who will manage the content? Who has the time to follow all of them? At the moment, the lack of activity on nearly all of these websites and groups is not an enticement to join; instead, it indicates a lack of both purpose and interest.
I do not object to progress; I believe that most advances in technology and communication have valid uses. However, I also believe in use of the appropriate tool for the job at hand. I don’t kill flies with a shotgun, and I don’t see the value of telling the business world that I'm at a great seminar or that I had a hard day at work.
I do think it's possible to have a website as a formal source of information, and a more casual presence on Facebook or LinkedIn. Having a group for people studying for an exam, as suggested by Joy Davis, is a good idea, and I'm sure there will be more. But, instead of making vague claims about why we simply can't survive without social networks, show us a real benefit. Don't put up new websites and groups just because it's easy; figure out what you want them to do, make a plan to achieve the goals, and keep them current and active.
Please - convince me!